ONLINE - ISSUE 17
Max Hardware: Harmonic Technology's New CyberLight
In a field where every itsy-bitsy, teeny weenie, yellow polka-dot, incremental improvement is heralded as a startling new breakthrough in audio technology and performance, it's damn hard to separate the wheat from the chaff, "Truth" from "hype." As plainly as I can, with my funky old face hanging out, I'm here to tell ya Harmonic Technology's subversive CyberLight interconnect cables are an original (Patent pending) deployment of glass fiber and laser-like technology to the audio realm—where metal interconnecting cables have ruled since Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone (1876). CyberLights are a new application of the relatively young technology we call fiber-optics. They may become the bell weather for an industry's development of a new generation of interconnects.
Bell did invent something called the "photophone," which used light waves to reproduce human speech at about the same time as he invented the telephone, but it didn't catch on. They didn't understand quantum mechanics, light as wave/particle. Hell, back then they didn't have much of a handle on germ theory. I know a little about this stuff because my wife Grammy Dudious (who grows more regal and stately as we mature) is a member of the AAAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science—the founding of which in 1880 was largely fathered over by Alexander Graham Bell—and we receive their 125 year old publication, Science magazine.
Along with fiber-optic technology, CyberLight cables bring a new level of performance. On that, my young audio buddy and neighbor, CSPAN's Paul Loeschke, concurs, saying, "I've never heard anything as clean." You might say, "Well here comes Old Man Max crying 'Wolfhound' again." And you might be right. I am an admitted cheerleader—but not a shill—for the industry. (A cheerleader praises good stuff: a shill praises all stuff.) I delight in real improvements. I seldom knock a product because, as Casey said, "That ain't my style." I'll refuse to review something I don't believe in, or is only a me-too product. Sometimes I err on the side of over-enthusiasm. Then again, if you don't believe me, wait 'til all the reviews on CyberLights pile up from the usual suspects in rival publications. Over time, I think the raw capabilities of CyberLight cables will build a fast following, here, at Positive Feedback Online—and in all the other publications, electronic and otherwise—because once again Jim Wang and his gang have raised the bar. (When I say "fast" following, I mean "fast" in the sense that they will quickly build a following, and in the sense that this following will be loyal as in "color-fast," or dyes that don't fade.) Wait 'til you hear 'em. I agree with everything Robert H. Levi, my PFO colleague, has written. (See Bob's initial impressions of the CyberLights elsewhere in this issue of PFO at http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue17/cyberlights.htm.) I might be even more enthusiastic than he is. If I wrote out all my positive thoughts, you might think me madly in love with a technology, an audiophile in the kinkiest sense. (I leave that to your lurid imagination.)
To best express some of my thoughts about cables I'll remind you there is a new book about translating the untranslatable called In Other Words. In it the author, Christopher J. Moore, brings up terms in foreign languages whose meaning might take a paragraph in English to communicate. For example, in Japanese there is a noun, "tatemae," that is a term often translated in English as "form," or "good form." It has a more specific cultural meaning that I think applies to the audio field as, "the reality everyone professes to be true, even though they may not believe it privately." I think a lot of audiophiles say they recognize that interconnect cables can affect the sound, but they don't think of cables as important components in their system. For a long time I was such an audiophile, even though I knew in my private thoughts cables made a (sometimes big) difference. As a tweaker, I thought I could "voice my system" by changing capacitor values in my preamp. Goetz Alpha-Core copper and silver ribbon cables, and Harmonic Technology copper and silver cables (with their emphasis on geometry, lay, and insulation) turned me around. I couldn't get such improvements with my old system of inexpensive do-it-yourself cables plus voicing my Levinson JC-2 preamp with equalization circuits, no matter how hard I tried. There was a degree of cleanliness that I couldn't attain.
It was then that my reviewing duties became a kind of in-home cable-appreciation course. I have really listened hard to a lot of cables.
A Short Vignette
I have an audio buddy who comes in town to visit friends and family every so often. He's a savvy guy, like you and me, who's been around to the shows, and driven absurd distances to audio boutiques to hear the latest and the greatest. And, lest you think I'm doing a ventriloquist trick, having some anonymous puppet speak for me here, I'll name names: and the winner is... Corno di Basssetto. He is a real-life New England cardiologist who hears very acutely. He has to. He relies on his Golden Ears in dealing with most serious diagnostic situations almost every day. He's a real guy, and not me, nor a surrogate. A hard-working doc, he's also my oldest friend. We've been through a lot of buddy stuff together, a lot of audio stuff, and I even introduced him to his wife. David Robinson has spoken with him on the phone to verify his existence in a different area code than mine, and he contributes record reviews to PFO. [The Maxmeister is right; I can vouch for the fact that Corno is a very real person, and neither a nom de plume nor an alter-ego of Max's. Signed, Ye Olde Editor….] Oh yeah, we often disagree about books, movies, CDs, and audio gear, arguing into the night. We like to argue. With him I am the champion of "low culture" (jazz, bluegrass, etc.) to his advocacy of "high culture" (Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, etc.), while in print I strive to widen the classical audience.
I am very familiar with Corno's system: matter of fact, I built his "Big Dude" loudspeakers for him nearly twenty years ago, and I've been keeping him up to date with improved drivers ever since. I know that except for his preference for tubed amplifiers, and mine for transistorized amps on these speakers, we get pretty similar sound. He was here a while ago, and, after unwinding from a day of traveling with a nice dinner and some pleasant wine at a nearby bistro, we started listening. After a while he started to shake his head, and I feared I was about to get a lot of negative crap from him. He's outspoken, and he's been very disenchanted with some review products that were in-house during his visits. For example, to some headphones I had about the place his response was, "Underwhelming." And to a middling amp, "Where's the beef?" I was girding my loins for a fight. I screwed my courage to the sticking post, gave him my best Woody Allen look, palms up, shoulders shrugged, eyebrows elevated toward the center, and said, "What?"
Nastier than that. More like "WHAT!?!"
"Fabrizzi is here! (He sometimes breaks into Peter Sellers imitations, getting me to laugh to quell my rising ire. Since the HBO biopic on Sellers, he's been refining his chops.) Madre de Dios! What hava you changed in your system since Fabrizzi was last here? The difference is multa bella."
"I thought I was going in a positive direction. All I changed was the interconnect cables, and all you do is shake your head."
"Fabrizzi shakes his heads in disbelief. The sound she is as wonderful and pure as the love beams between Tony Roma and Gina Romantica. It's hard to believe-a all you change-a was-a them interconnect cables to get so improvement expressivo. Multa Bella!"
"What's changed? WHAT!?!"
"Tutti! Tutti is-a changed. There is-a more clear. The soundstage is-a more space. There is-a more detail. With CDs Fabrizzi he's-a know so well, he hears so much-a more. Cleaner highs, clearer lows. More blooms in-a the middle than with my tubed system. More bald violin playing. How you say in English, 'hairless'? Lacking from what heavy-metal rockers call 'fuzz-tone.' That's a-nice. Less fuzz on the violins. Also lo-coloration coloratura soprano and tenor voices. What have changed? Tutti! Everything have-a changed. Is unbelievable. Fabrizzi he's-a thought to get such gains in performance, Maximiliano, you'd have-a to invest in Ferrari-priced amps."
With that, Peter Sellers exited stage right, and he was Corno again. We went on arguing about the relative cost/benefit ratios of various amplifiers, and various interconnects. One thing was clear, Corno said, my entire system had jumped a notch or two, say, from a B+ to an A system (hop-scotching over A-), with my CD player patched to my pre-amp, and my pre-amp patched to my amplifier via the Harmonic Technology CyberLight interconnects. I had achieved an "A" rating from one of my most critical listeners. My system was delivering everything from the exquisite detail of a Bach violin-harpsichord sonata (Bach, J.S., Four Violin Sonatas; BBC Music, Vol. 8, No. 3), to the wall of sound in a Rock 'n' Blues finale (Taj Mahal, The Real Thing; Columbia, LP G 30619), in particular, "You Ain't No Street-Walker Mama, Honey, But I Do Love The Way You Strut Your Stuff ." I was forced to agree.
A Little Theory
How is such a thing possible? Well, consider Copper: how malleable it is, and how it can improve with high purity and "Ono Constant Casting"; how some folks send their cables for either "cable cooking," or "cryogenic" treatments. How some manufacturers believe that silver plating the copper filaments improves performance. How others make a fuss about dielectric characteristics of the insulation, and the geometry and lay of the filaments, or the bundles of filaments. Each of these things improves the performance a small notch. All together they make a big notch.
Copper metal is, after all, made up of crystals that have to "interface" with each other. Across this interface between crystals is space, space filled with vacuum, or nitrogen and oxygen (air). When the current goes across this interface it arcs like an itsy-bitsy, teenie-weenie sparkplug, and no treatment, no number of nines, no silver plating, no geometry, can stop it. To a lesser extent, this is true of silver as well. (It is said silver has more dense crystalline structure, that they make "tunnels" for the electrons to traverse with far fewer collisions. We believe electrons jump in and out of copper crystals with enough force to move the crystals "off axis," out of optimally quiet position.) Silver, being denser, is more stable while passing signal, a quieter audio conductor, and "silver solder" has gained many believers among audio guys. As a result of passing signal, all metal cables have to put up with a certain amount of noise that sounds like "dioding hash." Shrewd designers can reduce this noise, but no metal cable can completely eliminate it. The frequency of this hash is in the treble range and it rides on top of violin notes and cymbals, etc. You recognize its presence by its absence.
More Hypothetical Theory
You hear its absence on violins played through CyberLight fiber-optic cables, which offer a lower noise floor, less tizz, less boom, inkier silences, cleaner cleans, blacker blacks, wider wides, and deeper deeps. CyberLight cables really do reduce tizz, and so offer cleaner violins, cymbals, and any instruments whose overtone structure is in the tweeter's range. For example, on Dave Brubeck's Time Out CD (Columbia CK 65122), the drummer uses a sizzle cymbal on "Take Five." Through lesser cables the "sizzle" (or sound made by pop-rivets riding in holes drilled in the larger cymbal) is often blurred by hash and is hard to discriminate. Through CyberLights there is more clearly delineated sound, and it is clearer than ever there is a sizzle-cymbal in use. Without any metal conductors, CyberLights eliminate "dioding hash" subjectively experienced as "tizz" or excessive sibilance.
In a similar fashion, metal filaments interact with their insulation much like a capacitor to create some extra bloom. Bloom, in general, is something we like. It is a euphonic (coming from the same Greek word as euphoric) coloration. Being sweet sounding, it makes us feel good, healthy. But, as with many other things, bloom can be overdone. Capacitive reactions can cause signal to bloom in the low frequencies, muddying the bass. This was common of early polymer capacitors that bloated the mid-bass (and deep bass) that was characteristic of the "warm" sound of tubed amps and preamps. Since physical chemistry has gotten a handle on the mechanism of electron storage, or the "Q-Factor"of dielectrical (or capacitive) materials, most of the better cables use more audio-appropriate insulation (Polyethylene, Teflon™, and related molecules). These insulators reduce bloom, but they still don't totally eliminate it.
Some number of electrons jump off the metal conductors and into the insulation, and they are stored there for a small amount of time, and then they are forced back into the metal by more recently arriving electrons that are at a higher energy state. These late-coming electrons arrive in real time somewhat behind the "main signal." What we get is, say, 90% or 95% of the main signal, mixed with 5% or 10% of the delayed signal. This makes for time-smearing. Without any insulation, fiber-optic cables really do reduce mid-range smearing and masking, so offering cleaner sound with increased detail. For similar reasons, but to a somewhat lesser degree (but equally important), CyberLight cables offer better textured bass. We hear the note of the bass viol, but we hear the woodiness as well (hear cut 12 on Shirley Horn's CD, You Won't Forget Me; Verve, 847 482-2). With an electric bass we hear the note, and we simultaneously hear the quality of sound that identifies it as an electric rather than an acoustic bass (hear cuts #2 and #3 on Billy Joel's CD An Innocent Man; Columbia, CK 38837). Such sonic differences I think of as "texture" or "nuances" that allow us to differentiate such things as acoustic from amplified bass, or the harmonic overtone structure that allows us to differentiate a note played on a clarinet (or oboe, or English horn) from the same note played on a trumpet (or French horn, or cello).
I think—and again I am not an engineer nor have I the test instruments necessary to measure such very small values—these improvements (or reduction of offensive colorations) in reduced bass bloom, mid-range time-smearing, and "dioding hash" riding on the trebles, are what Corno di Bassetto and I heard that night. It is almost impossible to describe the giddy and lightheaded rush we shared in my listening room, like when we were kids and one of us discovered a great recording. Or when di Bassetto got a Pickering Flux-Valve cartridge, or Waxie Maxie got his first stereo cartridge—a Fairchild, designed by Joe Grado. "I wonder how X might sound," he'd say, and I'd find my recording of "X." And I'd say, "What about the bass on that old Y record?" and I'd dig out "Y." And so on, and so on. We've been doing this routine for a long, long time and it's still exciting. We've learned "how to listen" from each other over the years.
A Random Thought
Sometimes the oldies of classical music prove not to be so golden. The engineering might be way less than ideal by today's standards, as in Turnabout's 1967 Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances, which was a highly-touted audiophile item. Or the performance might be considerably ragged, such as in the 1962 Berlioz' Symphony Fantastique (Charles Munch, Boston Symph. Orch.; RCA 7735-2-RV). We've concluded, "Not every Oldie is so Goldie." [Today's tout is tomorrow's doubt, sez Ye Olde Editor.] Though sometimes our informal, subjective tests show some products, such as the CyberLights, are up to advance notices.
Some Tough Recordings
On this night, it was time for a series of torture-test recordings of old CDs and LPs, such as: screechy strings (Bernstein's Candide; Columbia, MK 38732), too flaccid bass drums (Rachmaninoff, Symphonic Dances; Donald Johanos, Dallas Symph. Orch.; Turnabout-Vox LP, TV 34145S), jagged and harsh crescendi (Bruckner's 4th Symphony; Georg Solti, Chicago Symphony; London, 410 550-2), muddied diminuendi (Mahler's 3rd Symphony; Jasha Horenstein, London Symph. Orch; Unicorn LP UN 1198 Stereo) a Grand Prix du Disque winner in 1970; the nasal quality of Willie Nelson's voice; the tad-too-tizzy cymbals on the Shirley Horne album; the sometimes wooly texture of Billy Joel's bassist; each of which was "cleaned up" and improved upon by the CyberLights. On Billy Joel's An Innocent Man, we could hear differences in bass recording technique from track to track I'd never noticed (that's how well the cables were doing). And the original cast Candide CD never sounded so good.
Nearly all of the considerably small (but annoying) distortion products we had come to think of as inherent in even the best audio reproduction with excellent metal cables (fuzz on bowed strings, metallic coloration on human voice, contraction of sound stage due to time-smearing of spatial cues, over-emphasized bass bloom) were reduced or absent. Significantly decimated or totally gone were distortion products we'd assumed were in the recording equipment (noise coming from obsolete studio cables, agèd microphones, or miniaturized mixing boards with tantalum caps). Having lowered the noise floor, and better captured subtle spatial cues, the size of the soundstage increased, and we two old skeptics were out of our heads, over the moon.
Good SACDs (those originally well-recorded in SACD) sounded absolutely unbefreakinglievable; well-engineered regular old CDs sounded pretty damn good; and many old ones, even CDs of performances dating to the '30s and '40s, sounded respectable. It was what the industry promised when CDs were first released twenty years ago, when the world was young.
I have to tell you about my house. It sits mid-town in a modern city, blocks away from radio stations, on direct line of sight to a giant multi-purpose transmitting tower that handles TV, FM radio, microwave, etc., about a mile away. My house is on high ground amidst a matrix of broadcast, microwave, and cellular telephone transmissions. It is a 120 year-old Victorian wood frame house that amounts to a three story antenna, because it has wiring in it that has to remain. To remove it all would mean tearing into lots of plastered walls. I have done what I can to insure a dedicated line (a modern Romex, shielded and grounded 3-wire circuit) from the fusebox to the in-wall (Furu-Tech) socket for my music system. CyberLight cables minimized (or totally eliminated) admittedly-small-but-nasty distortion products that have been bugging me for years.
Six More Caveats
I should add some cautions here:
1) We examined these cables as if on logarithmic paper where the last few percentage points are represented in expanded scale so they may be viewed in greater detail.
2) We listened at increased volume, to hear the smallest glitches, the least bit of hum, the least bit of congestion on the loudest crescendo.
3) We listened to silence with the volume full on.
4) We listened to some really annoying recordings. We figure if they make pretty bad recordings sound passable, they'll make average recordings sound damn good. And they do.
5) CyberLight cables best show their stuff in truly good systems, and as a correction for systems that are a tad too bright. They can't solve the woes of a problematic room, or a difficult system. But relative to even Harmonic Technology's best metal cables, they improve the performance in these ways: they are quieter, more spacious, because they clean up highs (less tizz), lows (less boom), and mids (less smearing) as described above.
6) The improvements they offer are best noticed when played loudly through an already high resolution system. (This could be more a statement about my system, which sounds better as it approaches facsimile of recording loudness.)
Where lesser cables get into trouble, the CyberLights sail smoothly along. When the only change in the A/B comparison is a swap-out of interconnects, we can most likely conclude the audible differences are due to the cables (though this might have a round-about, multi-variable path, one that includes room interactions, measured cable impedance differences, etc.).
How is this possible? CyberLight cables convert audio signals to light pulses. If you think about it, you've probably seen something like this also executed in the analog domain. Do you remember the "light show" kind of hookup that was popular some years ago in night clubs and discotheques? Right on! (If you do, you're old.) If you don't, then let me explain: the light was variously broken into different colored bulbs, say, red, yellow, and blue. Using a relatively simple circuit, not unlike a crossover in a loudspeaker, the hi, middle, lo frequencies could be separated and routed to yellow, red, and blue bulbs, for example. When the music changed frequency, the appropriate lights would come on and off. With a simple resistor network on each part of the bandwidth, as the volume increased and decreased the light would get brighter and dimmer. Skillfully designed, such a simple system could enhance the effect of the music. I remember seeing units like this for home audio systems on sale at Radio Shack during the disco period, designed with the party-animal in mind.
More Hypothetical Theory
The current Harmonic Technology CyberLight system is light years ahead of the "light show," which I mentioned only to give us all a handle, or thought model, or a word picture with which to grasp the technology. The advances made during the decades of development in telephone and microwave data-transmission systems, plus their miniaturization and refinement, have made CyberLights possible. These two technologies have gotten very sophisticated, and the telephone and data transmission companies routinely convert audio into digits and uplink to satellites. For their purposes, they've satisfactorily worked out the problems of analog to digital conversion; clock synchronization, jitter, error correction, sound shaping, drop-outs, digital back to analog, etc.
Without the need for satellite transmission, Harmonic Technology (HT) has streamlined things; audio to light at the input, transmission through fiber-optic glass cables (but not TOSLink, thankfully!), and conversion from light to audio again at the far end. The signal is never digitized. HT takes audio and converts it to light with a micro-chip circuit small enough to fit inside an RCA plug housing. Utilizing a 12 v. power supply, this active circuit takes the light and passes it through fiber-optic glass cables, and at the far end uses a tiny circuit that reverses the light back to audio. They claim this system is practically lossless; any attenuation over some pretty remarkable distances is operating below the limit of the measuring instruments. Thinking about it as though it were a digital/TOSlink system will only confuse you.
Harmonic Technology calls this miniature circuit their LAM (or Light Analog Module) Photon Transducer Light Signal. This is analogous to the Analog to Digital Converter, but not the same since, again, the music is never digitized by the LAM. Rather, the music is converted from analog signal directly to light that they think of as a Photon Density Modulated signal. As a secondary benefit, the optical method of transferring the signal breaks the ground. This insures that there is no possibility of the cables passing junk signal between components, nor acting as an antenna for RFI (broadcast interference) or EMI (home computer or refrigerator) induced distortions, which further lowers noise floor and further reduces smearing. In my system, even with my Monster HTS 7000 AC power conditioner and AVS 2000 automatic voltage regulator, I've noticed a notch more inky black velvet background, with sounds arising from discrete spots in space.
If you're a guy whose system must always be on the leading edge of fine audio technology, Cyberlights are for you. If you are a guy who wants to kick performance up a notch, Cyberlights are for you.
Of course, there is the question of whether these cables are worth the price. To which I can only say, I can't make that call; "Is it worth it?" is a question that only you can answer. In the abstract, there is always the question of whether this or that technological improvement increases performance enough to justify replacing what is currently out there. There are some (if not many) really good metal cables that are in the same price range, whose performance comes reasonably close. But to tell you the truth, I can't think of any I've heard that do as many things as well as the CyberLights. Then again, to survey all the cables on the market would be a Sisyphusian task, because as fast as I could review one pair of cables, there would be another two new designs introduced.
Nevertheless, I can say that I've never heard a pair of metal cables sound as "natural" as these.
A Brief Cost/Benefit Analysis
To minimally hear what the CyberLights can do, you'd have one pair of interconnects from your SACD or CD player to your preamp. This cable is specially designed to avoid the possibility of mismatched impedances, is called the CyberLight Wave, and retails for $1499. You also have to have a Cyber Power Pack, for an additional $399, to supply current to the circuitry. In addition, you also ought to have a Cyberlight P2A (that's code for "preamp to amp") interconnect for another $1499. That's about $3500 for a set of cables, including power pack. You have to be prepared to think of this three piece set as a necessary component.
Then again, it is an active component, and there are some number of headphone amps, line stages, and even metal interconnect cables that are in this price class. So CyberLight cables are not out of range for the cable market, though they do demand to be considered in the top rung of price and performance.
Do they measure up? I think so, but that's a matter of opinion. Are they worth the price? I think so, but that's just my personal decision. For more technical information see their website http://www.harmonictech.com, and surf around until you find their "white paper" on CyberLight interconnects in the "Products" section. There you will find more information about:
To Sum Up
CyberLight Cables break new ground and are a potential revolution in cable design, manufacture, and performance. They escape the bounds of metallurgy and physical chemistry by adapting fiber-optics to fine audio use. They break the ground between the components they connect, freeing my system from all but the slightest traces of hum, buzz, hash, or white noise even with the volume all the way up, and even when they are not passing signal. (At full volume they do pass a very slight, very clean, whirring sound that I think is my heating system's circulation pump, and that I could never hear before because of all the other crud on the line.) That makes them the quietest cables I've ever had in my system. I assume with standard cables all that mixture of audio noise blends in with the music, coloring the sound.
If I'm correct in that assumption, then I can be categorical: the Harmonic Technology CyberLights are the cleanest, least colored cables I've ever had in my system. Yes, they are also among the most expensive cables out there, but if you want the benefit that they can provide, you have to think of them as a major new component that maximizes performance, as constant voltage supplies and current conditioners do. Who'd have predicted we'd have come to think of them as necessary components? I think we'll soon be forced into thinking of fiber-optic cables as the ne plus ultra in audio interconnect cables, and necessary to rid excellent systems of audio crud.
With CyberLights, my system sounded a tad soft, at first. I think that is because I'd grown accustomed to a lot of treble grunge riding on my music, mistaking those artificial accents for accuracy in the "presence" section of the frequency band-width. But solo violins and celli are breath-takingly woody and resiny through Cyberlights. If you are serious about purchasing these cables, make sure you get the Power Pack with the on/off switch. It will become obvious how to use it, and the old one is being redesigned to eliminate some minor problems. If your system already has a "warm" as opposed to "bright" sonic thumbprint, you might find you'll have to develop a way to brighten things up.
I've come to trust Jim Wang's engineering savvy about cable design as he is becoming a leader in the industry. I also trust his ear about what is "neutral," and "the truth." I believe the CyberLights are it. Funny, without the various distortions I had been living with, I can play my music a tad or two louder without my wife complaining—a secondary benefit which might be the telling datum.
Once again, "Good job!" to the gang at Harmonic Technology. This time they've raised the bar to a level I didn't think was possible. So do not pass "GO!" gentle reader. Run right out to your nearest Harmonic Technology dealer and arrange for a serious audition with your favorite SACDs, CDs and LPs. Or see if he'll loan you a set to listen to in your home. Print out this review and take it with you. You won't be sorry.
And you Indie recording studios, you too ought to listen up to CyberLights. Nothing cleaner! And tell 'em Waxie Maxie Dudious sent ya!!!